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Book learning November 19, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, memories.
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The only wars my family waged were with pen and paper.

Madhur Jaffrey, Seasons of Splendour.

As someone who lives a little too vicariously through books (and the occasional film or television series), the idea that a person might fight his or her battles on the page really resonates with me. For me, books have always provided if not guidance then at least aspirations. For almost as long as I can remember reading, I have latched on to particular characters and attempted, with varying degrees of success, to emulate them. There have been a lot of articles and posts recently about female role-models in literature (prompted in part by the upcoming release of the New Moon film and the inevitable bout of hand-wringing about the message Bella Swan sends to impressionable young women) and this post is prompted, in part, by these articles. I’ll do a links round-up over at Livejournal so you can see the sorts of things that are being said, if you’re interested.

I’m quite proud of my literary role models, on the whole.

The first character I can remember pretending to be, was, fittingly, Sara Crewe from A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. (I had spent many years pretending to be fairytale princesses before that, but I choose to ignore that as I feel my identification with these princesses was more due to the fact that they wore pretty dresses and jewellery.) For those of you not familiar with the character, Sara is the daughter of an English soldier who lives in India as part of the colonial administration. She grows up pampered in a London boarding school run by the cartoonishly vile Miss Minchin, until her father’s death, which leaves her penniless. Miss Minchin, who spoiled Sara because she hoped to get rewarded by the wealthy Captain Crewe, finds herself responsible for a girl she detests. Overnight, Sara’s life changes. Instead of being the favoured student at the school, she is now a drudge teaching the younger students. She has to move out of her luxurious rooms into a cold attic, eating scraps where before she had dined on delicacies.

What I loved about Sara was not so much the grace with which she endured this change in circumstances but the way she chose to endure them. You see, Sara was a reader. (‘She doesn’t just read books, Miss Minchin, she devours them,’ her father says.) More importantly, she was a storyteller. The thing that kept me covering wooden crates with red crepe paper (to make them look like Sara’s ‘battered red footstool’) and drawing fireplaces on bits of paper in order to stick them on my wall to recreate Sara’s attic bedroom was the power of Sara’s imagination. ‘Suppose,’, she would say, meaning, ‘Imagine something better than here’.

A Little Princess was an early lesson for me in the power of the imagination to overcome the most horrendous circumstances. The book articulated something I’d only just begun to understand: that books offered readers another, infinitely more wonderful world.

The next book to set my imagination on fire to such an extent was Adèle Geras’ wonderful The Girls in the Velvet Frame. What, you might ask, did a story about five Jewish sisters growing up poor in pre-Israel Jerusalem have to do with a seven-year-old middle-class Canberran in the early 90s? For me, it was two things: the warmth of the sisters’ relationship (and their relationships with their widowed mother Sarah and unmarried, ageing aunt Mimi), and the perfection of Geras’ characterisation.

I loved the matriarchal world of the Bernstein sisters, as I saw (and valued) a similar quality in my own family (which is made up of very strong women with very close relationships). And I loved, in particular, two of the sisters: dreamy Naomi, who saw the world through rose-coloured glasses and used storytelling to occupy her two younger sisters, and practical, cynical Chava (‘I always expect bad things to happen, because then bad things don’t disappoint me and the good things come as a nice surprise’). There’s a lot of Naomi and Chava in me, and there is a lot of stubborn, determined Dvora in my younger sister Mimi. I recognised this even then, and I identified passionately with Geras’ characters.

When I was ten, along came one character who would blow them all away with sheer awesomeness. I’m referring, of course, to Pagan Kidrouk, from Catherine Jinks’ Pagan Chronicles. I read these books initially as I was invited to a talk given by Jinks at the sadly now defunct Griffith Library, and I fell in love with the snarky, sarcastic, scarily intelligent hero. It’s been a life-long love affair: if Pagan were to walk out of the pages of the books today, I would follow him to the ends of the earth, even if all he did was make disparaging remarks about my intelligence and rage at the stupidity of mankind.

Part of the appeal of Pagan lay in his identity as a literate intellectual in a largely illiterate, anti-intellectual world (the books are set during the Third Crusades). He was irresolutely bookish, with a rich, if angry, intellectual life going on in his head. He has always appealed to my book snobbery, which in my preteen days was even more fierce than it is today. I read, therefore I am would’ve been my motto if I’d heard of Descartes. Pagan made even the illiterate characters recognise the value of reading: Lord Roland, the knight whom Pagan serves, remarks (giving me a quote that has always resonated with me), ‘People who read are always like you. You can’t just tell them, you have to tell them why.’ I swooned, and I’m still swooning today.

The Tomorrow series by John Marsden also provided me with a set of inspirational characters. After briefly cheating on Pagan with Lee (haha), I settled down into a more sedate appreciation of this classic Australian series. I honestly think it was one of the most important cultural artefacts of my generation. For about five years, everyone was reading these books. When a new one came out, we’d all be discussing them on the playground, speculating about who would live and who would die. They were, for my generation, bigger than Harry Potter, and for that they’ll always have a special place in my heart: although I loved being a reader because it set me apart, I also enjoyed it when my classmates and friends read so that we could discuss books.

I also adored the characters because they rang so true. Not one of them is a stereotype or a cardboard cut-out placed in the book as a mouthpiece for Marsden’s views (which happens so often in so many YA books). Oh, sure, it was very clear what Marsden’s views were, but he let them seep through organically, whispering at the margins of one of the most gripping plots I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Marsden’s teenage characters, from Ellie the tomboyish, self-reliant narrator to Fi the sheltered princess, from Robyn the pacifist Christian to Lee the depressed, revenge-obsessed artist, taught me how to be brave. They taught me that war was hell and that I had a moral obligation to do all that I could to prevent it, and they taught me that teenagers were the most powerful, most adaptable, most resilient and most resourceful creatures on the planet.

The next author to play such a significant role in my moral and intellectual development was the wonderful, eloquent, word-weaving Philip Pullman. He gave me such great gifts: the character Lyra, from his His Dark Materials series, who is probably my favourite fictional heroine, and is definitely the most heartbreakingly human character ever to stalk the pages of a book, and the book The Tiger In the Well, which gave me a speech which has informed my political beliefs to this day. These books didn’t exactly change my beliefs (I was an atheist already, I was in favour of knowledge and consciousness and life, I was a social democrat, I was appalled by unchecked capitalism) so much as confirm them and articulate them in a way that I could not have done myself. No books have ever meant more to me than His Dark Materials and nothing has ever had, or will ever have, such a profound effect on my life.

In His Dark Materials, the idea that a very small event has the potential to create millions and millions of universes is a crucial theme. Well, the fact that my sister overheard me complaining about lack of books (I was put off by the cover of Northern Lights, which had animals on it: I’ve never been particularly interested in stories about animals) and forced Northern Lights into my hands utterly changed my life. I would not be at Cambridge without Philip Pullman.

There are several other book, film and television characters who are important to me: Amelie from the movie Amelie (who gave me unrealistic expectations about life, but introduced me to the joys of quirkiness and serendipity), Sulien ap Gwien from Jo Walton’s Tir Tanagiri Saga (who showed me that one could have a fulfilled life without romantic realitionships), Una from Jo Walton’s Romanitas series (whose intense introversion and observation of other people is something with which I identity strongly) and the characters in Joss Whedon’s television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly (who taught me that the family that you choose for yourself, united, can never be defeated, and that misfits can save the world).

These characters are in some ways more important to me than the themes of the texts in which they appear. As I took on all these characters and integrated them into my identity, they ceased to be the creations of their respective authors and became something different. I hesitate to say that they taught me how to be, since of course I am not as stoic as Sara Crewe, as resilient as Naomi and Dvora Bernstein, as intelligent as Pagan Kidrouk, as brave as the teenagers in the Tomorrow series or as all-around awesome as Lyra. I don’t have the courage of my convictions of Dan Goldberg and Sally Lockhart, I don’t brighten the lives of those around me as much as Amelie Poulain, I’m not as loyal as Sulien, I’m not as determined as Una and I’m not as good a friend as the characters in Joss Whedon’s shows. But all these characters taught me who I wanted to be, and how I wanted to live. Although I do not live up to their standards, that I value these standards says something essential about my identity.

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